Something smells up there, or at least that what NASA hopes.
A carbon-sniffing satellite was launched into orbit on Wednesday from Vandenberg Air Force Base charged with the task to study and track the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The satellite, called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2), is part of NASA’s first mission dedicated to studying carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Scientists hope the $466.6 million project can help pinpoint the major sources of human-caused carbon dioxide and measure its impact on the Earth's climate.
OCO-2’s "nose" is actually a sensor that measures the intensity of the sunlight reflected by the gas in a column of air. Each individual measurement is unique and can be used both for identification and to determine patterns of carbon emission.
"Our uncertainty in carbon, what's happening with carbon, leads to a lot of uncertainty in climate," said Joshua Fisher, a JPL research scientist.
Observations of carbon dioxide levels of Earth are expected to begin in about 45 days.
The mission team is staffed and led by members of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, based in Pasadena. For the lab OCO-2 represents the culmination of years of successes, failures and some things that never quite got off the ground.
"This is the satellite that everyone's been waiting for," Fisher said.
Most recently, OCO-2’s launch was scrubbed at T-46 seconds on Tuesday due to a malfunction in the launch pad water system.
But the most serious setback to the launch of a satellite dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide happened back in 2009 when the first edition of the OCO crashed into the Indian Ocean only minutes after lift-off.
The satellite will eventually settle at the head of the A-Train constellation, a group of satellites that orbit the globe together in formation, collecting massive quantities of climate and weather data.
- Download: Download the NBCLA Mobile App
"Climate change is the challenge of our generation," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. "With OCO-2 and our existing fleet of satellites, NASA is uniquely qualified to take on the challenge of documenting and understanding these changes, predicting the ramifications, and sharing information about these changes for the benefit of society."
Scientists expect to begin archiving calibrated mission data in around six months and plan to release their first initial estimates of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations early next year.